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Ged Kearney: Unions working for women

ON FRIDAY the ACTU president Ged Kearney gave the keynote address at the Unions Tas Women’s Conference.

She spoke about a recent a radio interview about new legislation on workplace gender equality.

“The government has legislation in the parliament at the moment that hasn’t passed yet, which is that big companies need to report on gender equity issues. They just have to submit a report on how many women they employ, what they pay them, and if there’s a difference, and initiatives that they have to help women.

“Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen was also on the show… saying the new legislation was rubbish and if women wanted to get promoted in the workplace then they would, if they wanted to get on boards then they would, and it was all about merit. I was thinking “that means 92% of our women aren’t smart enough or ambitious enough to get on boards – I don’t think so. I’m trying to argue this and I’ve got to say I didn’t really do a good job…

“I was moaning about this to a woman who’s a bit of a mentor of mine, Joan Kirner, the former Victorian Premier. I asked her about how to argue against all of that merit rubbish. She said, “I’ll tell you what you say Ged… you tell them do you think that every bloke in every seat of parliament on every board and every position of power got there on merit? I don’t think so.”

Overall, Ms Kearney said unions were going quite well when it came to getting women’s issues on the agenda.

“We are making advances, I really believe that. Nearly a million women are covered by Domestic Violence clauses. It’s becoming part of what we bargain for.

“Paid parental leave – we’ve got a long way to go. But we’re getting there and it’s thanks to the union movement that we’re getting there.”

Ms Kearney said the “big fight” for the union movement is around the wider ACTU campaign on insecure work, where women are grossly over-represented. Insecure work means casualisation, short-term contracts and sham contracting, a trend that is happening across all industries, not just the retail or hospitality sector.

“Look at what’s happening in the TAFE sector. In New South Wales 80% of teachers are on some form of casual or insecure contract. In nursing people are on short-term contracts. In construction, manufacturing, more and more people are employed by labour hire firms. At one worksite they get a text message the night before telling them if they’ve got a shift the next day. People are living this, with no security around income or hours of work, they can’t plan their lives. The people who are over-represented in this are women.”

Ms Kearney said women were often forced into insecure work in particular because of caring responsibilities and so-called flexibility, which she referred to as the new f-word.

“People might say that’s a good thing, they’ve got a flexible work. Why should we as women give up our rights we’ve worked so hard for because we have to care? If you’re in a casual job you don’t get sick leave or carers leave. If anyone needs those things, it’s women with caring responsibilities.“

A 2011 ACTU survey looked at the top issues affecting women. Number one is job security. Number two issue is caring responsibilities.

The ACTU heard a lot of heart breaking stories from women on their website, including women who were told by management in an email falling pregnant was like a resignation letter.

“This is today – this is not the 1800s,” Ms Kearney said.

“Right now we’re at a critical moment – the Fair Work Act has been reviewed and the government has recommended some really good changes. For example, they want to put into legislation that you have to give notice when you change rosters. That’s a good thing, particularly if you have kids in care that you need to plan for – I think that will help women. They want to expand the reasons why you can request flexible work. Currently there are two reasons why you can ask for flexible work – for children under school age or children with a disability under 18. With the proposed changes they’re looking to change that to include domestic violence situations, for elderly parents, a spouse – basically for anyone who’s dependent on you, you have a right to request flexible work arrangements. We support that.

“But the problem for us is what’s the point of having a right to request if you can’t enforce it. Right now you can request flexible work arrangements but if the boss says no there’s nowhere to go. What we’re looking for is somewhere to go to have that decision reviewed. So you can go to the Fair Work Commission and say “I don’t think this is fair, I’d like an independent umpire to look at this decision”.

Ms Kearney also said insecure work was also an attack on the union movement because it was hard to organise casual workers.

Despite this attack she said the union movement was strong and able to fight back. “There’s no other organisation in Australia that has 2 million members. So we’re going to be a huge force if we get a coalition government. We have to stay strong, we have to grow.”

The new ACTU campaign ads encourage Australians to join a union for a better life, and highlight the impact of insecure work on families.

You can see photos from the conference here.

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